Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Breakfast for Supper

Although I've never observed Lent, I've had pancakes on Shrove Tuesday more often than not. I have fond memories of my father whipping up a batch of homemade pancakes (that always included his "secret" ingredient, "l'amour", love) and serving them alongside fried baloney (an Atlantic Canadian delicacy). Did we ever feel special! Breakfast for supper?! The madness!

I skipped a few pancake suppers while in university, because, let's face it, when you don't really cook, and you were spoiled with love pancakes throughout your childhood, what's the point in trying to make them yourself? However, I am proud to say that for the second year in a row, I have reintegrated this delicious tradition into my home.

I'm no expert on making pancakes; to be honest, I've made them less than a dozen times and am not yet fully comfortable with the process. Things like over-mixing the batter, and finding the right heat level and cooking time get me a little frazzled. It doesn't help that Jeff is a Pancake Connoisseur, which makes me desperately want to impress him, and only adds to the pressure. (To be fair, this panic is self-inflicted. I could serve Jeff baking soda pucks, call them pancakes, and he would still rave about them for days). As usual, when I'm unsure about a cooking method, I turn to good ol' Betty. The Betty Crocker Cookbook recipe for basic pancakes is the one that I follow, because its detailed instructions (and handy tips) guide me along, and they turn out a little better each time I make them. What a gal!

It's time for a foodie confession. I know fluffy pancakes are the ideal, but I find them too dessert-like; therefore, since I'm a savoury breakfast kind of girl, I choose the whole wheat flour option when using this recipe. Consequently, the pancakes have the denser texture that I prefer. If lighter-than-air pancakes are more your thing, use all-purpose flour and make sure your batter is perfectly lumpy (that is, stirred until just combined). To each their own!

Shrove Tuesday or not, breakfast for supper is a great idea. Over the course of the day, whenever my mind wandered to that night's dinner, as it often does, I would remember my plan for pancakes, and smile. (Sometimes only in my head. Smiling about pancakes while in a meeting isn't a very good idea). I'm suddenly inspired to consider breakfast as an option for supper more often when planning meals. If it makes me feel so happy, I think it should be done more than just once per year.

Don't wait for a tradition; make pancakes for supper whenever the mood strikes you. If you've never made them from scratch, please don't be afraid! Practice makes perfect. Just don't forget the secret ingredient, and you'll be fine.

Pancakes: The Recipe
From Betty Crocker Cookbook

Amanda's notes: As I mentioned before, I use whole-wheat flour. Since this results in a much thicker batter, I do stir in extra milk after mixing (2-3 tbsp). I substitute brown sugar for regular sugar (just because I love brown sugar) and also add a teaspoon or so of cinnamon for flavour. I grease the pan with butter, and re-grease as needed.

This is a pretty small recipe. I usually get about 5 medium-to-large pancakes out of it, which is perfect for two people, but I've doubled and even tripled the recipe for guests.

I keep pancakes warm on a plate in a 250C oven until I'm ready to serve them.

If you'd like to add fruit or chocolate chips, the best way to do this, rather than mixing them directly into the batter, is by pressing them into the pancake as soon as you pour it in the pan. This way, you get a more even distribution of the good stuff.

It would be a sin to serve these with anything other than pure maple syrup.

Prep: 5 min Cook: 10 min Yield: Nine 4-inch pancakes

1 large egg
1 cup all-purpose or whole wheat flour
3/4 cup milk
1 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp vegetable oil
3 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt

1.Beat egg in medium bowl with hand beater until fluffy. Beat in remaining ingredients just until smooth. For thinner pancakes, stir in additional 1 to 2 tablespoons milk.

2. Heat griddle or skillet over medium heat or to 375 degrees. (To test griddle, sprinkle with a few drops of water. If bubbles jump around, heat is just right.) Grease griddle with vegetable oil if necessary

3.For each pancake, pour slightly less than 1/4 cup batter from cup or pitcher onto hot griddle. Cook pancakes until bubbly on top, puffed and dry around edges. Turn and cook other side until golden brown.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Morning Ritual

Every day, I get out of bed about a half hour earlier than I need to. Although it helps that I'm generally a morning person, the main reason that I'm able to accomplish this feat is that I really enjoy breakfast. I think sitting down to breakfast is exciting, because the day ahead has so much potential. Who knows what could happen? Plus, it is virtually impossible to be having a bad day before I sit down to eat my first meal; therefore, there is nothing peskily distracting me from the good food in front of me. Perfect for a foodie!

My usual breakfast consists of an egg from a local producer. Not only do I absolutely love eggs, but also, I have found that I need the protein in the morning if I don't want to be starving a couple of hours later. Even though I eat the same thing almost every day, I never get bored; after all, the greatest thing about eggs is their versatility, and I take full advantage of it when making my breakfast. When it's really cold out, sometimes nothing but a hot scrambled or over-easy egg will do, and, if I have some extra time on my hands and feel like making my morning even more special, an omelette definitely starts my day off on a high note. The possibilities with eggs are almost endless, which is wonderful, because a little variety certainly helps motivate me in terms of the whole getting-out-of-bed-too-damn-early thing.

Hardboiling is my favourite way to cook breakfast eggs, because I can prepare as many of them as I like at once and store them in the fridge. Though it's convenient, this breakfast still takes a little bit of time to prepare, as I prefer to devil the egg: I remove the shell, cut the egg in half, mash the yolk with a bit of mayo, wholegrain mustard, and salt and pepper, spread the filling back into the egg halves, and finish with a sprinkle of paprika.

Just as important as the egg, a small piece of my favourite applewood-smoked cheddar cheese, a glass of milk, and a cup of coffee, brewed from locally-roasted Down East Coffee beans, are the other players in my breakfast of champions. I also like to include any fruit that is in season, but, since I can't bring myself to eat the Frankenberries trucked in from California at this time of year, I go without in the winter. (It's OK, I just appreciate fruit even more when it finally does come around!)

Apart from the food, what makes my morning ritual truly special is just taking some time to relax before I go to work. Lingering over coffee with Jeff while the sun shines into the dining room is a cherished part of my routine. We talk about our plans for the day while listening to Information Morning, which inevitably spurs some great conversation about the news. In fact, now that I think of it, many of our most memorable discussions, debates, and laughs have occurred over breakfast. This mental stimulation that helps me get going in the morning is another thing that I am willing to lose a little sleep over.

It takes time and effort to have a true foodie breakfast every single day, but I know that it's worth it. I've learned that when I haven't managed to drag myself out of bed on time for my usual routine (this occurs most often on subzero temperature, pitch-black mornings), the rest of my day will be affected for the worse. So, I keep at it, even though it's not always easy. If you are the type of person who rolls out of bed and scarfs something down (or, horreur!, nothing at all) before running out the door, consider taking a bit more time for yourself. I know it's not for everyone, but I bet that doing something special for breakfast even just for one morning per week is bound to put you in a great mood. Who knows, after trying it a few times, you may find yourself unable to start your day without it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

I'd Rather Live to Eat

Potatoes and I do not always share a loving relationship. Yes, I know that they're dirt-cheap. Yes, I know that they're a staple to many. Yes, I know that they drive our local economy. I'm also aware that a New Brunswicker speaking out against potatoes is like Raffi speaking out against children. Forgive me, but my problem with potatoes is that they're just a little…they don't always…I just can't seem to…OK, they're boring. Boring, boring, boring! There, I said it.

There's just something so depressing about a group of plain, boiled potato chunks sitting in a sad mound on a dinner plate. Just like everyone else who grew up with this kind of potato as an accompaniment to most meals, when faced with them, I simply eat them as quickly as possible before moving on to the rest of my meal. Well, now I say, that's ridiculous! Food shouldn't be so boring that it is shoved absent-mindedly down our throats, just because it's there! How SAD that we waste so much foodie potential on these unexciting vehicles for butter and salt! I call for CHANGE! Change we can BELIEVE in! DOWN with mediocre potatoes; NO excuses! Rah! Rah! Rah!

In my quest over the years to make potatoes more exciting, I've read many different recipes and have even tried a few of them. It turns out that making potatoes into a gourmet side dish that you will want to savour is surprisingly easy; really, once you move away from the boil-and-serve method, they can very enjoyable! I have cut baby new potatoes in half, poked holes in them, and let them soak up a Greek-inspired marinade before grilling them to a tasty crisp on the barbecue; I have also roasted quartered potatoes in olive oil and lots of salt, pepper, and rosemary until they formed golden crusts. I'm happy to report that both of these preparations led to success, and potatoes began to find a tiny little place in my heart (or, more like a giant place in my stomach).

While those attempts were all well and good, a recent find has knocked all of the other potato recipes out of the park. The recipe I'm about to share with you is the absolute best way to prepare potatoes, hands down. Are you sure you're ready for this? I'm warning you, you'll never be the same.

In this recipe, baby potatoes are boiled, smashed to within an inch of their life, drizzled with olive oil, and then roasted. Boiled, then roasted. Genius! The result is a perfectly crispy potato with just a bit of a fluffy interior. Jeff and I prepared them for a dinner party a few weeks ago, and they were perfect.

Here they are, re-warmed in the oven for a mid-morning brunch, just as good as the first time.
Crispy, smashed, roasted. Mmmmmmmm. We may yet become friends, potatoes.

Crispy Smashed Roasted Potatoes
From The Best of Fine Cooking: Roasting Magazine, 2008-2009

Amanda's notes: I used a masher instead of towels to flatten the potatoes. The bottom of drinking a glass would probably do just fine as well. I didn't bother laying them on towels to cool; I smashed them directly on the foil- and parchment-lined pan that ended up going in the oven. In addition to lots of salt and pepper, Jeff sprinkled a bit of garlic powder and rosemary onto the potatoes before roasting. Although I didn't think of it at the time, sprinkling some chopped green onions on them before serving would also be delicious.

12 to 15 baby red or yellow potatoes (about 1-1/2 oz. each; 1-1/2 to 2 inches in diameter)
2-3/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Boil the potatoes:
Put the potatoes in a large saucepan (preferably in one layer) and cover with at least an inch of water. Add 2 tsp. kosher salt to the water. Bring the water to a boil over high heat, reduce to a simmer, and cook the potatoes until they are completely tender and can be easily pierced with a metal or wood skewer. Make sure they are cooked through but don't overcook. The total cooking time will be 30 to 35 minutes.

While the potatoes are cooking, set up a double layer of clean dishtowels on your countertop. As the potatoes finish cooking, remove them individually from the water, and let them drain and sit for just a minute or two on the dishtowels.

Flatten and cool the potatoes:
Fold another dishtowel into quarters, and using it as a cover, gently press down on one potato with the palm of your hand to flatten it to a thickness of about 1/2 inch. Repeat with all the potatoes. Don't worry if some break apart a bit; you can still use them.

Cover a large rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil; put a sheet of parchment on top of the foil. Transfer the flattened potatoes carefully to the baking sheet and let them cool completely at room temperature.

Roast the potatoes:
Remove the pan of potatoes from the refrigerator, if prepared ahead. Heat the oven to 450°F. Alternatively, if you have a convection function, turn it on and set the temperature at 400°F. Sprinkle the potatoes with about 3/4 tsp. salt and pour the olive oil over them. Lift the potatoes gently to make sure some of the oil goes underneath them and that they are well coated on both sides. Roast the potatoes until they're crispy and deep brown around the edges, about 30 minutes if using a convection oven, 30 to 40 minutes if roasting conventionally, turning over once gently with a spatula or tongs halfway through cooking. Serve hot.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Just Winging It: Simple Coleslaw

Every Sunday, I do some prep work in the kitchen that will make my life easier during the coming workweek. I usually boil some eggs for my breakfasts, chop up veggies for my lunches, and sometimes I'll even create some kind of side dish to speed up dinner preparations. Recently, I have been making coleslaw as an easy and delicious complement to absolutely any main dish: chicken, roasted vegetables, sandwiches, burgers, sausage, refried beans, casserole…the possibilities are endless. I haven’t found anything with which it hasn’t paired well. It is so easy to come home from work, pick any combination of protein and vegetable, and know that I already have a third element prepared that will round out the meal. Ah, simplicity.

I used to base my coleslaw on a more complicated recipe that was delicious, but called for ingredients that I did not always have on hand (such as limes). Although I’m sure I wasn’t the first to create it, this recipe was born out of a need to improvise when the grocery store was closed. It is so simple, that I was surprised to find it tastes even better than my old recipe. I have stuck with it ever since, and have even served it alongside Jeff's roasted chicken at a dinner party. I'll never get tired of it. It is that good.

The Recipe (Sort Of):

Our coleslaw begins at the market, where a vegetable farming family sells many of its offerings all chopped up and ready to go. It is the closest thing to a convenience item that you will find at the farmers market, at least among my preferred vendors (after all, there is a sketchy man who somehow sells Oceanspray Craisins). Although some people might think that shopping at the market automatically means that they are doubling their prep time in the kitchen, these fine vendors would prove those people wrong. They are brilliant, and I let them know every Saturday how much easier they have made my life. Anyway, since I am preparing coleslaw for several suppers and a few lunches, I am making a double batch. (By the way, the purple cabbage tastes the same as the white; I just like the splash of colour. Food should be a visual experience as well as a gustatory one.)

I also like adding green onions to the mix, because they bring in a lot of flavour. I would say I use six or eight bunches for a double batch of coleslaw. As you can see, I chopped them pretty roughly because Jeff and I are both really big fans and don’t mind large pieces. However, if I were unsure of my guests’ tastes, I might chop them more finely and/or use less.

Onto the dressing. It contains only four ingredients, and you already have all of them: mayonnaise, yellow mustard, salt, and pepper. That’s it!

I only use the best, baby. None of that low-fat or miracle crap in this household! (If you ask me, the only thing that's a miracle about Miracle Whip is that some people manage to keep it down! *Rimshot*)

Er…I’m not sure that there exists a Hellmann’s of the ballpark mustard world. Grocery store brand is just fine.

I can’t specify the amounts or proportions of mayonnaise and mustard I use to make the dressing; really, I just throw some in a bowl, add salt and pepper, taste, and adjust as necessary. However, do add a lot more mayonnaise than you do mustard. You definitely do not want your dressing to be "mustardy"; the mustard should be approached as a simple flavouring agent, not as an equal to the glorious mayonnaise. Just keep tweaking until you think it tastes good, and then add in your cabbage, carrots, and green onions, and start folding.

Once everything is nicely incorporated, taste to make sure there is enough dressing. I happened to find that I underestimated how much I would need for the double batch; that's not a problem, I just threw in a bit more of the ingredients (see below, I swear it isn't an egg) and stirred again. It is impossible to ruin this coleslaw.

Although you can serve the coleslaw immediately with excellent results, I find it tastes better after it sits in the fridge for at least a couple of hours. It becomes more and more delicious as the week goes on. All you have to do is stir it a couple of times to redistribute the dressing, and, voilà, you have the perfect side dish all ready to serve!

Seriously, now: who wouldn’t want to come home to this?

Food is Love

While I’ve had a larger-than-average appetite for as long as I can remember, and have always gotten immense joy out of eating food, it wasn’t until five years ago that I became interested in cooking. Having finished my first year of university, I was back at home with my parents who had recently purchased, along with a big-screen TV, several specialty channels. My father, who has always been interested in cooking and has a lot of talent, watched the newly acquired Food Network on a regular basis. One evening, I decided to join him on the couch while waiting for my laundry to dry in the next room. Now, I can’t quite remember which show he was in the middle of watching— it was most likely Emeril Live, Licence to Grill, or Boy Meets Grill—however, I do know one thing: this moment changed my life.

I’m not sure if it was the fact that the big-screen made fresh and colourful ingredients look the size of a pick-up truck, or if, considering there are many great hobby cooks in my family, I had some kind of genetic predisposition to cooking that was triggered at this instant; in any case, I was mesmerized by this channel. Over the next four months, if I wasn’t at work or in the pool, you could bet your life savings that I was watching one of my favourite shows: Everyday Italian, Barefoot Contessa, Chef at Home, Good Eats, Christine Cushing Live, or Iron Chef, to name just a few. I couldn’t get enough, and I was learning every day.

I didn’t really put any of my new information into practice until I went back to university, where my sister and I shared an apartment with a decent kitchen and did our own groceries. My culinary revolution started small: I began chopping an onion, just like I was taught on the Food Network, and sautéing it in olive oil until soft before adding in the usual ingredients for our supper (at the time, since my sister is a vegetarian, this would have been tomato sauce, tofu, or veggie burgers, among other things). I think the fact that this simple concept was a huge step for me in terms of learning to make my food more flavourful illustrates how much help I so desperately needed in the kitchen.

Fast-forward a few years from when I thought chopping an onion was news-worthy, and you’ll find a woman who owns more than two dozen cookbooks, spends at least thirty minutes per day scouring the Internet for new recipes, and who cooks from scratch with her fellow foodie boyfriend (Jeff) on a daily basis. Cooking has become more than a means to sustain life; it is a hobby, a passion, an obsession. In addition to cooking, I have become much more interested in the origins of my food and its impact on my local economy; shopping at my local farmer’s market is a weekly ritual that has allowed me to form relationships with the very people who grow and raise my food, and who very clearly appreciate my business. I can think of few things that are more heart-warming than a smile from a farmer to whom you have just raved about how much you enjoy the fruits of their labour (no pun intended.) When I can see from afar that my favourite cheesemonger has spotted me and pulled my usual wheel of cheddar out of the case, it reinforces my belief that I make the very best choices when it comes to what I buy to eat. I am thankful to these hardworking people every day when I sit down to a nice meal with Jeff.

This blog will be a place for me to share my experiments in the kitchen. I firmly believe that cooking seems a lot harder than it really is; if you have good ingredients, you don’t have to do a whole lot to them to make a delicious meal. Once I learned the basics of cooking, I became much more confident in trying new things and developing my own style. Although I collect hundreds of recipes for inspiration, I hardly ever follow them to the letter. Therefore, as someone who has no artistic ability, cooking allows me to express myself creatively. Trust me when I say it really doesn’t take much to get started; all you may need is the Food Network, and an onion.